Executive privilege: Theo still gets no respect from his peers

By Randy Richardson

Any guess how many times Theo Epstein has won baseball’s Executive of the Year Award?

The answer will probably surprise you.

Not once.

That’s right. Zip. Zilch. Zero. Nada.

The baseball wunderkind, who in 2004, at the age of 30, as general manager of the Boston Red Sox, led the team to its first World Series title in 86 years, didn’t win the top executive award that year. No, the Sporting News, which has handed out the annual honor since 1936, gave it instead to Walt Jocketty, then the GM of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Well, surely, you’re thinking, Epstein took home the top exec award in 2007, when the Red Sox won their second world championship in three years. Nope. The young GM lost out that year to the Cleveland Indians’ GM, Mark Shapiro, his second Executive of the Year Award after winning it in 2005, the year that the Chicago White Sox won the World Series.

Let’s add this up. From 2004 to 2007, Epstein collected two World Series titles and no top executive awards. In that same span, Shapiro’s team won no championships but yet he took home two top executive awards.

The panel that votes for baseball’s top executive is comprised of MLB executives, so the winner is selected by his peers, a dubious honor given their record.

This is the same good-old-boys network that once gave their top honor to Philip K. Wrigley, the owner of the Chicago Cubs from 1932, when he inherited the position from his father, William, until his death in 1977. In his 45 years at the helm, Wrigley’s Cubs won a grand total of, well, you know the answer: zero championships. This is the same owner who, in 1961, instituted the Cubs’ widely-ridiculed “College of Coaches,” a failed concept in which the team had no manager but was instead led by an eight-man committee. The Sporting News awarded Wrigley the top executive award in 1945, a war-depleted season and the last time the Cubs appeared in the World Series, which they lost to the Detroit Tigers.

This wayward history of the Executive of the Year Award is given by way of introduction, so as one can better understand and appreciate the announcement this week that the Toronto Blue Jays’ GM, Alex Anthopoulos, had been awarded the top executive award for 2015 after a “bold series of moves helped lead Toronto to its first division title and playoff appearance in 22 year.” Those are the words of the Sporting News.

Coinciding with the announcement of Anthopoulos’ award was the news that he would not be back in the Blue Jays’ front office in 2016, after he rejected a contract extension offer. The Sporting News cited “multiple reports” that a rift between Anthopoulos and new team president and CEO Mark Shapiro led to the decision.” If that name Mark Shapiro rings a bell, it is because he is the same Mark Shapiro who won those two top executive awards as GM of the Indians in 2005 and 2007.

It is hard to argue with Anthopoulos’ selection, though one might wonder about the long-term implications will be for the Blue Jays for those “bold series of moves” that ultimately didn’t get them to the World Series. Sure he roped in Russell Martin, Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki and David Price. But at what cost? Only time will tell but if history is any indication those short-term moves tend to come at significant long-term costs – and the team dealt away a lot of its prospect wealth to get it only to the NLDS.

Which brings us back to Epstein, and his place in the 2015 voting for Executive of the Year.

Wait, before we get back to the actual voting tabulations, let’s first look back at what Epstein did. As Cubs’ president of operations, he orchestrated a 24-game turnaround, from 73-89 in 2014 to 97-65 in 2015, the team’s first winning season since 2009. Perhaps his moves were not as bold as Anthopoulos’ but they were smarter in that they were calculated to boost the team not only for 2015 but for years to come.

For Epstein, the turnaround really began in 2014, when he used his first-round draft pick, the fourth pick overall in the MLB draft, to take Kyle Schwarber, a slugging catcher. Many presumed Epstein would turn to pitching after selecting Kris Bryant, another power-hitter, with the 2nd overall pick of the 2013 draft. But Epstein stuck with his rule of drafting by level of talent rather than need. That method paid off in a big way as Schwarber shot through the minor league system all the way to the big league club, even to the postseason where he set not only a Cubs record with five career postseason home runs but also the most homers in a single postseason by a player age 22 or younger.

Then at the July trade deadline in 2014, Epstein pulled off a heist, sending two of his starting pitchers, Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija, in exchange for the Oakland A’s top prospect, shortstop Addison Russell, who rose so fast that by August of 2015 he had pushed three-time All-Star Starlin Castro to second base.

In the offseason, Epstein roped in the biggest pitching prize of all, acquiring Jon Lester in free agency, while also bringing back Hammel, also through free agency. He then added veteran leadership in two key positions via trades, obtaining centerfielder Dexter Fowler from the Houston Astros for third baseman Luis Valbuena and relief pitcher Dan Straily, and catcher Miguel Montero from the Arizona Diamondbacks for two prospects.

But the biggest catch of all for Epstein was not a player, but a manager, Joe Maddon, who would guide the young team to the third best record in all of baseball and all the way to the NLDS, surpassing just about everyone’s expectations for the 2015 Cubs, except for the moviemakers behind Back to the Future II.

What did all of that add up to for Epstein in terms of the 2015 Executive of the Year Award voting?

One vote.

One measly vote.

Out of 47.

Epstein’s single vote was good for a tie for seventh place with Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations. Seven executives received more votes. In order of votes received, they are: Anthopoulos (21); Neil Huntington of the Pirates (10); Dayton Moore of the Royals (4); Sandy Alderson of the Mets and John Mozeliak of the Cardinals (3); and Jeff Luhnow of the Astros and Terry Ryan of the Twins (2).

All of which kind of makes the Executive of the Year Award kind of a joke, doesn’t it?

If history repeats itself, Epstein will be the one laughing at the end. Because surely he’d be happy to forego a lame executive award for another World Series ring.

Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation.